A review of: Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Story of American Music and Jazz: A History of America’s Music by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.
Ken Burns’s latest effort, a 10-part, 18-and-a-half hour documentary on the history of jazz, hit the public airwaves in January. As a jazz critic, I received numerous requests to review the production. My response was always the same: I don’t need to see it to write a review. It’s Ken Burns, hippie granola-head and king of the documentary-melodrama, which means we’re in for yet another race-obsessed orgy of political correctness.
Well, I was half-right. Burns’s Jazz actually had some memorable moments: Louis Armstrong creating magic on his horn, leonine dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, sharp cultural criticism by Wynton Marsalis (who also served as a creative consultant on the film) and Stanley Crouch. And the accompanying book is a wonderful coffee-table offering of the music. But for all of that, Burns still couldn’t help himself. Again and again in the film, he showcases the racial slights suffered by black musicians at the hands of whites. This was indeed a part of jazz history. But Burns often makes it usurp the music, which is colorblind.
This is the Burns touchstone. And it was entirely predictable—especially for anyone who read the liner notes of the Jazz soundtrack, which was released months before the film aired. There we learn that the documentary presents the wide range of American cultural and historical events that interact directly with the music—among them harsh racial polarization of the 1890s and early twentieth century; the artistic and political ferment of the Harlem Renaissance; the exuberance of the Jazz Age; the Great Depression and the New Deal; the Second World war; the emergence of a youth culture in the 1950s and the 1960s; the hope, anger, and expectations of the civil rights movement; and the search for identity and authenticity in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
As if there was any doubt, the next paragraph informs us that “Jazz raises questions central to American life: about race and class, art and commerce, virtuosity and collaboration, the individual and the community…. It is a story of affirmation in the face of adversity.” Oh yes, and there were some musicians involved.
Jazz gives us, yet again, the old story about how the music was invented by blacks in the whorehouses of New Orleans and then traveled up the Mississippi River to northern cities. Historian Ted Goia more or less demolished this myth in his seminal Jazz: A History. Buddy Bolen, widely noted as the first jazz player, learned to play his horn in church. And the music didn’t travel up the Mississippi as much as people thought—after all, Chicago and New York are hundreds of miles from the river’s shores. And why Burns would drag the “youth culture” of the ’50s and ’60s into what has always been regarded as an adult art form is a mystery.
Burns also misleads with his orthodox interpretation of “the artistic and political ferment of the Harlem Renaissance.” The sharpest critics of the Harlem Renaissance and its claims of a new African-inspired sensibility in the arts were black journalists and scholars, but Burns neglects to mention that. George Scuyler, the most prominent black journalist of his day, poleaxed the Renaissance in a 1926 essay. He noted that “black” American art was just like “white” American art—namely, influenced by Europe. “This, of course, is easily understood if one stops to realize that the Afro-American is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon,” Scuyler wrote.
If the European immigrant after two or three generations of exposure to our schools, politics, advertising, moral crusades, and restaurants becomes indistinguishable from the mass of Americans of the older stock (despite the influence of the foreign-language press), how much truer must it be of those sons of Ham who have been subjected to what the uplifters call Americanism for the last three-hundred years. Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American.
But blacks today can’t be just plain Americans, at least according to a certain elite way of thinking. In Jazz, there is a lengthy dissertation on the song “Strange Fruit,” which is about lynching, and how Billie Holiday risked life and limb just to sing it. What isn’t said is that, lyrics aside, “Strange Fruit” is a mediocre song: plodding, insipid, unmelodic. But then, liberals have always loved Billie Holiday not as a jazz talent but as a junkie-martyr to white supremacy. This is probably why on the five-disc Jazz soundtrack, Holiday has five songs while the effervescent and sanguine Ella Fitzgerald has one, a throwaway from her early years. Also missing: Sinatra, Dinah Washington, Mel Torme, Peggy Lee.
In Jazz the film, I fully expected to get the Left’s absolute favorite, indispensable, utterly predictable chimera: the big, bad conformist 1950s. To his credit, Burns seems to acknowledge that something was lost when music moved from the dance floor to the academic lounge. The documentary includes a funny interview with lindy hopper Frankie Manning, who recalls his bewilderment—and anger—when he took the stage to dance for Dizzy Gillespie and Gillespie hit him with the frantic rhythms of bebop. Burns also include a photo of audience members looking baffled at the beboppers. These fans were not idiots, just pop music fans. Burns does not ridicule them the way many jazz musicians did. But he doesn’t give much time to black critics of bop. Lois Armstrong, in particular, dismissed it as “crazy, mixed-up chords that don’t mean nothing at all.” The song, Armstrong insisted, was lost amidst all of the skunking and riffing.
The pop songs Armstrong performed and immortalized, such as “It was Just One of Those Things” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” were considered a “sell out.” As writer Gerald Early notes in the documentary, Armstrong was ridiculed by other musicians and more militant post-war blacks who thought he was an Uncle Tom because (in Early’s words) “whites loved him so much.” Beboppers thought he was musically passé.
But Burns prefers to exalt Satchmo as an unacknowledged race warrior (he criticized Eisenhower, after all), thereby tying Armstrong and every other black musician to the Struggle against the White Man. Once again, liberals will have their aggrandizing mythology reinforced: the postwar years were a time of great conformity and racism. That the period was in any way a more civil, well-mannered, and sharply-dressed society—just look at Burns’s own calvalcade of photos—and as such has a thing or two to teach us about our self-serving race obsessions and loss of adult style is not considered.
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The idea that before the 1960s America was a caveman culture has become so embedded in our collective conscience that it’s almost futile to point out how wrong—and how racist—it is. The critic Stanley Crouch, who has a conservative streak, observed that many jazz musicians weren’t exactly homeless. Ellington was a swank, patrician character who enjoyed the finer things in life and lived at a time that in many ways was more civilized than our own. “Duke Ellington was the greatest jazz composer who ever lived,” wrote Crouch. His philosophy was based on the idea that, as he put it, “if it sounds good, it must be good.” But the Duke was also, Crouch writes,
like many Negro jazz innovators, a favored child. He shared with Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and others a background in which he was pampered, tucked in, read to, and reared to believe in himself and his own opinions without reservation. Our simple-minded presumptions about color and conscience frequently dupe us into missing the facts of these matters. The restrictions of race had nothing to do with how these artists saw themselves when accurate expression of their imaginations demanded that they innovate.
But in these race-obsessed times, nothing can be judged on how it sounds anymore. Everything is a Statement About the Struggle.
Some jazz fans blame the drop off of the music’s popularity on racism, but this is such an absurd claim that even Burns doesn’t take it seriously. After all, this is the racist country that sent Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and other black swing artists to the top of the charts. It is the country in which only two kinds of music were allowed to be broadcast following the news of FDR’s death: classical and a concert by Ellington. Yet Miles Davis once called pop music “white music,” and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a documentary about the great jazz label Blue Note, offered that “whites couldn’t appreciate anything that came from black culture.” All of that avoids one critical fact: since the bebop revolution, jazz has become harmony rather than melody-driven. Melodies make hits, which most people like. The popularity of jazz began to sink when musicians abandoned melody.
The collateral damage done by Ken Burns’s latest opus could be very bad indeed: rock hipsters flocking to the Village Vanguard, pretending they’ve been there for years, tacky T-shirts, trendy public-radio tie-ins, and yet more CDs on sale at Starbucks. Just think of the legions of earnest, working-for-a-nonprofit, support-your-independent-bookstore, recount-forever liberals popping Theolonious Monk and Miles into the Volvo CD player as they shuttle from happy hour to yoga class.
It’s enough to make a decent person turn to teen pop.